Sunday, April 20, 2014
YOLO COUNTY NEWS
99 CENTS

Young robotics enthusiasts in a league of their own

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Zachary Callahan, Aidan Phimmasehn and John Campi watch their robot perform a walk across a table. Fred Gladdis/Enterprise photo

The Citrus Circuits robotics team should be getting a regular influx of new talent in the coming years, not that it necessarily needs it.

The team of Davis ninth- through 12th-graders has been dominant in FIRST Robotics competitions in recent years, winning regional championships and even making it to the Final Four of last year’s world championships.

But the future looks even brighter, now that a team of fifth- through eighth-graders has formed and begun competing against other young teams in FIRST LEGO League robotics tournaments.

The league, designed to get children excited about science and technology, currently has more than 20,000 teams in 70 countries. Teams build autonomous robots using the LEGO MINDSTORMS robot set and compete against other teams to see who can complete the most tasks on a thematic playing surface.

Parent Elizabeth Campi started the Davis team at the behest of her son, John, earlier this year and “Combustible Circuits” quickly grew to a dozen youngsters purely through word of mouth.

They meet weekly after school in a classroom at Da Vinci High School, just steps away from where Citrus Circuits meets. In fact, the older team sends a couple of students over to help mentor the youngsters every week.

Combustible Circuits actually came a bit late to this year’s robotics season, having formed six weeks after most other teams had already gotten to work building their robots. Thus they came in 11th out of 12 teams in a regional competition last month.

“But we were just happy to be there,” Campi said.

They benefitted from having several young team members with experience in programming — Campi’s son as well as Carter Luck and Finn O’Toole Boire.

“I did summer camps on LEGO MINDSTORMS,” Carter, 11, explained. “I know how to make the robot move, and this doesn’t really use advanced systems.”

Competitions require that teams program their robots to accomplish a series of tasks. “Nature’s Fury” was the theme of this year’s competition, meaning robots had to learn how to do everything from removing a downed tree limb from power lines to raising a house above flood waters, with everything made from LEGOs. Points were earned for each task accomplished.

Because they were so new to the competition, Elizabeth Campi said the team decided “to just narrow it down to the easiest missions because we thought we could accomplish them.”

“We weren’t going to win,” Carter added.

But they got some experience under their belts nonetheless.

And their robot, “Fred,” did accomplish the tasks they intended.

Now that the team finds itself in the off-season — having not done well enough at last month’s competition to move on — they’ll continue meeting and mastering tasks, as well as visiting area elementary schools to show off their robot.

Campi expects as word spreads, Combustible Circuits will have to split up into several teams, since it’s recommended that teams number no more than 10 kids.

“We didn’t even advertise before and still got 12 kids,” she noted, “so I’m pretty sure we’ll have more than one team next year. Now that the tournament is over, we can start expanding.”

She hopes more girls especially will consider joining since the current roster has just one girl — Aidan Quinton, 11.

“I like working with LEGOS,” Aidan said, explaining that she heard about the team from a classmate at Birch Lane Elementary School and “thought it sounded cool.”

Campi herself doesn’t really have a robotics background — though she does work for an IT company.

Her son’s interest is what prompted her to start the Davis team, which is now coached by both her and parent David Ceppos.

“I’m just doing this because John’s been asking for it, but it’s cool,” she said, adding that it seems to bring all different types of kids together.

The team will now have to focus on some fundraising to purchase additional equipment and Campi hopes the team members with programming skills will begin teaching those skills to teammates.

“They’ve barely scratched the surface of programming,” she noted.

But there’s plenty of time for that.

Learn more about FIRST LEGO at http://www.firstlegoleague.org. Find out more about the Davis team and how to join by emailing combustiblecircuits@gmail.com.

Reach Anne Ternus-Bellamy at aternus@davisenterprise.net or 530-747-8051. Follow her on Twitter at @ATernusBellamy.

Anne Ternus-Bellamy

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